Protecting civil society helps preserve basic freedoms

September 25 2012: The Ugandan government has increasingly come down harshly on NGOs over the last few years. Projects or programs that could highlight government failings are particularly targeted. How likely is it that the government and civil society can come together to confront the challenges Uganda faces?

Peace poster produced by a Ugandan civil society group. Uganda is known for the richness and diversity of  the civil society groups that operate there. Photo republished from the Advocacy Project under a Creative Commons licence.

“As long as you are not engaged in advocacy, human rights activities, you are safe”
We sat in a Kampala coffee house in early July with Oscar, an NGO representative of a civic education group that tackles a range of issues – from health to government reform. For over 15 years Oscar has been educating Ugandans about their rights. He told us he had come to realize that words he’s always used like “human rights” and “good governance” have steadily become taboo in Uganda. His efforts were putting both him and his organization at risk. “As long as you are not engaged in advocacy, human rights activities, you are safe,” he told us. “Even if you are small and you engage in policy advocacy, you are not safe.”

Oscar had personally received the repeated unwelcome attention of a district internal security officer after his work on a public survey about health and education services outside Kampala raised red flags with the authorities. The security officer called Oscar to his office to ask him why he was carrying out the program and who was funding the work. The officer told him that these kinds of activities would only bring him trouble.

To comply with Ugandan law, Oscar’s organization must seek registration from the NGO Board, a government body overseeing all nongovernmental organization activities. Like many of the NGO staff Human Rights Watch interviewed in June and July, Oscar is worried that the board will reject his application.

The government has increasingly come down harshly on NGOs over the last few years. Projects or programs that could highlight government failings are increasingly under surveillance, at risk of obstruction, and in some cases, threatened with closure. Officials have warned that groups doing “political” work – in other words focused on good governance, land rights, the rights of LGBT people, or oil transparency – could face deregistration. Playing on paranoia of international interference, the government has gone so far as to say that groups that get any foreign funding are trying to subvert Ugandan sovereignty.

The NGO Board itself is trying to get funding from international donors, though, to expand its own work. The board’s leadership would like to move out from under the Ministry of Internal Affairs and have more autonomy and distinct budget lines. In theory these are all good goals, since they could allow the board to defend civic groups and be a more effective partner. However, in the last few months the board has made decisions and taken actions against organizations, siding with the officials that have been criticized by civil society. It has continued to hinder, rather than facilitate, the work of NGOs.

In the current framework of NGO regulations in Uganda, members of the intelligence community are legally mandated to monitor NGO work. These security services actually sit on the NGO Board, though no civil society representatives do. Essentially, civil society and non-profit organizations are treated as potential national security threats.

Meanwhile, LGBT groups have been unable to register as legitimate human rights groups altogether – homosexual sex is illegal in Uganda. Despite the claims of certain government officials, though, it is not actually illegal to discuss LGBT issues in Uganda. These groups have every right to register and operate to bring to the fore the human rights of the groups and individuals they represent. In theory LGBT groups, as well as all other organizations, should benefit from the support of the NGO Board.

The board cannot assume the role of a trustworthy partner for civil society with the current involvement of intelligence officials and lack of NGO representation and the seemingly politically motivated positions the board has taken against certain groups. And the board is just one expression of increasing government hostility toward NGOs; the government itself should stop attacking these groups.

Uganda’s Minister for Environment, Maria Mutagamba explained how Uganda is being impacted by Climate Change. The Ugandan government is keen to increase its direct engagement with international donors. Photo from Oxfam, published under a Creative Commons licence.

Oscar mentioned that for his organization to keep operating, he has already had to stop some of his projects. Self-censorship in the face of increased scrutiny, harassment, and intervention by officials is already a reality. The situation for groups like Oscar’s, for the LGBT community, and for other organizations working on sensitive issues will only deteriorate unless the government stops this alarming trend.

Civil society, NGOs, and community-based organizations have essential roles to play in any society based on human rights and the rule of law. These groups could be working together in partnership with the government to address the myriad pressing problems Uganda faces. With a more reliable NGO Board, some of the issues causing conflict – land access and oil revenue allocation for example – could be effectively remedied. Protecting civil society’s right to operate without harassment or fear is not just a goal in and of itself, but integral to protect a safe future for all Ugandans.

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